Recursive romantics

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "And on the pedestal these words appear: "And on the pedestal these words appear: "And on the pedestal these words appear: "And …"

This doesn't work very well with simple quotative tags:

"""There was a ship," quoth he," quoth he," quoth he.

I don't think that this is just because right-branching structures are more natural in English — it wouldn't work any better if the quotative were first:

He said "he said "he said "there was a ship""".

It's the (familiar?) repeated openings that make it comprehensible.




  1. Sili said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Don't most style guides prescribe alternation quote marks for embedded quotes?

  2. richardelguru said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:57 am

    Sorry for this but …can't resist….
    …the classical version is surely in Shelley’s Sonnet Elephantmandias. As Shelley* tells it the legend goes:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said “Two vast and legless trunks of stone
    Stand in the forest…
    Nearby on a pedestal these words appear —
    ‘My name is Babar, King of Kings , look on
    My works Ye mighty and despair.’”

    * Winters that is.

  3. S Frankel said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 7:02 am

    Morris Bishop's version preserves perfectly the theme of the original:

    And on the pedestal these words appear:

    "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings

    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

    Also the names of Emory P. Gray,

    Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer

    Of 17 West 4th St., Oyster Bay.

  4. Bloix said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    This is the song that doesn't end,
    It just goes on and on my friend,
    Some people started singing it not knowing what it was,
    And they'll continue singing it forever just because,
    This is the song doesn't end …

  5. Guy said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:10 am

    I think part of the problem with "he said" (other than the simple fact that it sounds like a series of false starts) is that we want to find referents for each of the individual "he"s. Usually we would expect an indirect report in cases where pronoun confusion would arise.

  6. D.O. said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:14 am

    But if you digress into "I met a traveler…" part would you be ever able to reach "And on the pedestal…"? This has to be related to the notion of actual infinity somehow…

  7. D.O. said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    Russian version:
    У попа была собака, он её любил,
    Она съела кусок мяса, он её убил.
    В землю закопал,
    Надпись написал:
    "У попа была собака, etc.

    A priest had a dog, he loved her,
    She ate a piece of meat, he killed her.
    Buried her in a grave
    Inscription he made:
    "A priest had a dog…

  8. Guy said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:27 am


    Not necessarily, at least not if you mean what's typically called "completed infinity" rather than the "actual infinity" involved in, say, a hypothetical set of all ordinals. Some mathematicians objected when transfinite odinals were first introduced that they required a philosophical acceptance of "completed infinity", but they really don't. Statements involving transfinites are perfectly capable of being interpreted as idealized mechanical processes – or oracles, in noncomputable cases – representing different ordering rules on the natural numbers, and interpreting them this way tends to reveal deeper insights about what those statements really mean. The canonical double-negative interpretations from classical theories into intuitionistic theories, which can then be interpreted into a quantifier-free theory a la Gödel's T theory (the Dialectica interpretation) show how "completed infinity" isn't as philosophically troublesome as some argued – most of the objections to the idea just melt away.

  9. John Lawler said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:35 am

    A slightly more complex use of the poem appears in the header for the Chomskybot.

  10. david said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 11:45 am

    thus we regress into regression.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    Morris isn't the Bishop I thought of, but Elizabeth:

    Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
    trying to recite "Love's the boy stood on
    the burning deck / trying to recite "Love's the boy stood on / the burning deck …

    (Not sure if the formatting will survive, but there should be line breaks after the first "deck", and the second "on", and it's interesting to work with a self-quoting poem that inserts line breaks in the quotation that weren't in the introduction and omits any that were.)

  12. D.O. said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

    Would this work?
    "You fool!" answered echo, answered echo, answered echo….

  13. Rubrick said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of the completeness of infinity, which unfortunately this margin, or any margin, is too narrow to contain.

  14. m said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    You may think that this is the end. But it isn't cause there's still another chorus….

  15. January First-of-May said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:31 pm

    @ D.O.:
    For a second I wanted to say "hey, that's not the only Russian version!"
    However, all the other Russian versions (that I can think of) are in the style of The Song That Never Ends (without any actual quotative tags).

    On the whole "infinity" problem: that's exactly how transfinite ordinals work. This one in particular is ω2 (that is to say, ω+ω, where ω stands for the ordered set of natural numbers – i.e. what normal people think of as "infinity").
    And, in principle, it's theoretically possible to reach the end of the sequence (and thus reach the next sequence) if, when going towards "infinity" (i.e. a limit ordinal), we just keep going exponentially faster.

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    Itali Calvino eked out this joke to full novel length.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

    Italo Calvino eked out this joke to full novel length.

  18. peterv said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 1:46 am

    Lewis Carroll's 1895 paper in Mind cleverly explores a related idea with respect to the use of inference rules in deductive reasoning.

    L. Carroll: What the tortoise said to Achilles. Mind n.s., 4 (14):278–280, 1895.

  19. Arthur said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 6:06 am

    Fans of recursion may be interested in a current pop music chart topper, "This is my Fight Song," by Rachel Platten. The title is the refrain.

  20. Treesong said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 8:59 am

    Four thousand years from now we'll see
    How much is known of Percy B.
    — Robert Bryan Lipton

  21. Don Sample said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    It's only an infinite regression if there is a repeat of travelers, so the same story gets told, over and over, by the same people. If each traveller meets some new traveler, eventually you will run out, or one of them might say something different.

  22. Florence Artur said,

    July 30, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

    When I was a child we had this little song:

    "Mon pantalon
    Est décousu
    Et si ça continue on verra le trou de
    Mon pantalon…"

    (Bad) translation:

    My trousers are torn
    If this keeps up everybody will see the hole of
    My trousers

    This is not a perfect regression since the sentence is incomplete. The logical ending would be "mon cul" (my ass) which of course explains why we loved it.

  23. Michael said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    And let's not forget "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza,
    dear Liza,…"

  24. Clayton said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    Saying, “Something is dead, long live Something!” is dead, long live saying, “Something is dead, long live Something!”!

  25. Adam Roberts said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    Ozymandias replies:

  26. Marc Sacks said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

    And then there's the old song,
    "My name is Yon Yonson,
    I come from Wisconsin,
    I work in the lumber woods there.
    When I walk down the street,
    The people I meet,
    They say, 'What is your name?'
    And I say …

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